You can't answer it, can you? Breast cancer is pink — everyone knows that. AIDS is red. Yellow ribbons support our troops. But domestic violence (it’s purple, by the way) has almost zero brand recognition. Case in point: October is domestic-violence awareness month. And, October is almost over. How many purple ribbons have you seen?
Clearly, domestic-violence-awareness month has, well, an awareness problem.
Odds are, if you’re a woman, you already know about domestic violence and assault — there’s a one-in-four chance you’ve been a victim. So, what’s stopping us from talking more openly about such a rampant threat to the well-being of women?
Well, let's start with what it's not. It’s not a battle of women's issues, in which the unsexy cause of partner violence loses out to breast-cancer awareness (both claim October as their awareness month). Would that it were so, breast-cancer awareness, hot pink and ribboned and everywhere, would be a far easier foe to identify and defeat than the ignorance and lack of compassion that really stands in the way of true domestic-violence awareness. This is not a turf war.
So, if the pink ribbon isn't the problem, then what is?
The biggest challenge, according to Kim Gandy, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, is stigma. We're talking about the widely held belief, even among progressive, socially conscious thinkers, that a woman who gets into an abusive relationship and fails to escape is somehow at fault. That she landed in a hell of her own making, even. It’s a nifty defense mechanism, really. You can try it at home! Just read a news story about domestic violence and ask whoever is sitting near you, “Why didn’t she just leave?”
Gandy hears this question and the affirmation that comes along with it — “I would have left” — all the time. Too many times. “That’s the most painful question,” she says, but it doesn’t seem to stop people from asking it.
And, here's the thing that's really scary about it. “Why didn’t she just leave?” is actually just a hop, skip, and a jump from the rape-apologist mantra, “She was asking for it.” But, somehow, women who are scandalized by the latter, a trope that blames rape on miniskirts instead of men, can find themselves thoughtlessly dismissing a victim of domestic violence for “bringing it on herself” by staying in a dangerous environment.
It's almost a double-edged sword of empowerment, this assumption that women who “allow” themselves to be victimized are somehow weak.
On one level, it’s understandable why women react to horror stories with a knee-jerk, “That would never happen to me” response. It’s mostly wishful thinking, with a dash of “I’m invincible” thrown in for good measure. “In part, people say that because it distances them from the possibility of being a victim,” says Gandy.
But, if you think there’s a typical, standard domestic-violence victim — that she’s poor, for instance, or uneducated — you would be incorrect. “Domestic violence crosses race, religion, socioeconomic lines,” says Gandy. “It affects everybody. It’s universal.” The misconception that poor women are more likely to be victims probably stems from the fact that women with lower incomes are more likely to seek out social services, whereas wealthier victims may have a safety net — their own savings, family, or friends — and never wind up reporting the abuse.
So, if it happens to everyone, why are we still allowing this problem to live under the cover of darkness and secrecy and shame? Well, a lot of it comes down to messaging. A similar problem plagues victims of rape, who also wind up portrayed as a “type.” As recently pointed out by Amanda Hess at Slate and Jessica Valenti on her Tumblr, the generic image of a rape victim is a drunk white girl having far too much fun with her friends.
And, much the same way, people just assume that victims of partner abuse are somehow to blame. They're weak or allowing it somehow. “People have a very strong idea of who victims are,” said Gandy. "They’re other people who are not like you. Until they are.”
Gandy has plenty of exhausting, depressing statistics to share, like the fact that three women in the United States are murdered every day by a partner, and, according to the CDC, domestic violence costs the country $5.8 billion a year.
“But, those statistics don’t really move people,” she says. “What really moves people are stories.”
The irony is that, as long as we live in a culture that blames victims for “not leaving” instead of holding perpetrators of violence accountable for committing such atrocities in the first place, a critical mass of victims won’t feel safe and supported enough to come forward with their stories.
Although some advancements have been made — most notably the passage of the Violence Against Women Act — we’ve got miles to go. The VAW Act, passed in 1994, reduced reports of domestic violence in the U.S. by 50% among adult women, according to Esta Soler, president and CEO of Futures Without Violence, who has been working to combat these issues for more than 30 years.
But, it’s girls and young women ages 16 to 24 whose situations are most dire. They experience the highest rate of intimate partner violence — nearly triple the national average. “We don’t have a national campaign that is really dealing with 16- to 24-year-olds that is rigorous and comprehensive,” says Soler.
Plus, reaching women is only half the challenge. “If we’re serious about ending violence against women, we really need to engage men in the conversation about how they can be partners to women,” said Soler.
Kenya Fairley, a senior director for the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, pointed to campaigns like “No More” and “A Call to Men” as examples of that kind of outreach. “Only trying to address what happens with victims, that’s important, life-saving work. But we have to address the root of the problem.”
Easier said than done, clearly. So, we have to ask: Is there some watershed moment awaiting domestic-violence awareness? The just-right ad campaign, the shocking news story, the perfect celebrity endorsement?
“I think that the watershed moment is actually a collection of watershed moments,” says Eric Ferrero, vice president of communications for Planned Parenthood. “It is a large number of individual women being able to come forward and share their stories and their experiences and put a name and a face to an epidemic. That forces the public to know somebody who has survived domestic violence...I think that the power of that kind of human narrative to diffuse stigma and shame and judgment is really unparalleled.”
How optimistic are you that we’re getting there?
Long pause. “That’s a really good question.” Another long pause. “I think we have a ways to go.”